Why the marketing rule of 7 may no longer apply 

It’s often said that consumers need to see a brand’s message seven times before they remember it – the rule of seven. But research from the University of Sussex into people’s tendency to see the expected* suggests that being presented with the same message over and again could actually do more damage than good. One of the report’s authors, Professor Jamie Ward, revealed more about the research to the Mindlab Academy.

First, the team looked at what happens if one eye is presented with dark lines going at 45 degrees, and the other eye with lines at the opposite angle. Would people see both sets superimposed or would one be more dominant? The research finds that people do not see a superimposed version of these two images and experience a criss-cross. What they experience is one visual or the other. Professor Jamie Ward believes: “What is interesting here is whether that is driven by the eyes competing with each other or by the mind’s biases.” 

They went on to test the impact of being presented with a 45 degree visual for a second, and then again moments later but at the same time as an opposite visual. Would people be more likely to see the visual they had already been presented with earlier? Professor Jamie Ward continues: “What we found is that everybody can be biased to see what they expect, whether that is visually, through verbal instructions or a person’s imagination.” 

“What are the implications of this for brands?”, we asked Professor Ward. He told us: “We’re dealing with very simple visual stimuli, and on timescales of seconds, but it wouldn’t be unreasonable to consider what the effects are for advertising. If you have seen an advert in the previous 30 seconds, are you more likely to see a product on the shelf? Or if you saw an ad weeks ago, does that actually make the product paradoxically less likely to jump out, because you’ve not encountered it again? It’s almost like it’s flipped – the advertising has done the opposite to what it was designed to do because your reality has not met your expectations and therefore you’re no longer expecting it. So, there are these interesting questions about the contingency in time between having the expectation and seeing a product in a crowded space.” 

Another test that was carried out was comparing strong darker lines with lighter faint lines. “With the lighter lines, what we found is that people gravitate towards the matching stimulus – so, with a faint stimulus, they will see what it is that they’ve been primed to. However, if we present them with a strong line that is really easy to see and then with both the dark and light lines, people don’t tend to see the dark lines they have just seen, they see the light ones. It’s almost as if it’s a repulsion rather than a magnetic effect. If you present a weak thing, then they’re going to see it again. But then, with the strong line it’s almost like their brain is saturated, and they gravitate towards novelty.” 

What could this mean for advertising, especially online advertising when consumers could see the same ad time and again in just seconds? Is it better to see a different visual each time, rather the same thing over and again as is the norm? What appears to be key is variety. The real answer to effective advertising is much more nuanced than the rule of seven may suggest. 

*Andermane, Nora, Bosten, Jenny M, Seth, Anil K and Ward, Jamie (2020) Individual differences in the tendency to see the expected. Consciousness and Cognition, 85, 1-20.

Jamie Ward is Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Sussex’s School of Psychology. He is also Founding Editor of Cognitive Neuroscience, President of the British Association of Cognitive Neuroscience and Co-Director of Leverhulme Doctoral Scholarship Programme ‘From Sensation and Perception to Awareness’. 


Related posts

Subscribe to the Academy

Sign up for emails from the Mindlab Academy.